Nel's New Day

September 19, 2011

Gays, Lesbians Can Now Ask, Tell

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 4:51 PM

Within a few hours life will be different for the hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians who were once in the military, are serving now, or want to join. In the past, being discovered as gay or lesbian in the military led not only to the loss of benefits but also the possibility of being forced to repay the costs of their education or enlistment bonuses. Others could not get jobs because of the negative “homosexual conduct” coding on their discharge papers or in some instances, less than honorable discharges. At midnight, September 20, 2011, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the ban on gays and lesbians in the military, ends.

The abuse of these people who wanted to serve their country by enlisting in the military started almost a century ago. Melvin Dwork, 89, knows well the pain of discrimination against gays. After almost 70 years of fighting to remove the term “undesirable” from his discharge, he succeeded over a month ago on August 17. Without the word “honorable,” a discharge refuses the recipient benefits including pension, health care, and a military burial. Dwork believes that the effect goes much deeper. “That word [undesirable] really stuck in my craw. To me, it was a terrible insult. It had to be righted. It’s really worse than ‘dishonorable.’ I think it was the worst word they could have used,” he said.

This decision is the first time that the Pentagon has taken such action on behalf of a World War II veteran since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Board for Corrections of Naval Records pointed out Dwork’s “exemplary period of active duty” and noted that changing the terms of his discharge was done “in the interest of justice.” The Navy has said his benefits will be reinstated retroactively although it’s not clear whether Dwork will receive back pay for the last 67 years. At least his health care may provide for the hearing aid that he badly needs.

Dwork was one of about 100,000 gays and lesbians in the military who were discharged between World War II and 1993 and lost their benefits because of their sexual identity. Another 14,000 were forced out since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was passed in 1993, but most of them received honorable discharges. Estimates indicate that another 60,000 gays and lesbians are now serving in the military. No one knows how many others have been affected by this ban.

One question is whether those who were removed from the military because of sexual identity will return. Hundreds of the almost 14,000 have contacted recruiters, but a big issue is rank. Many have lost years of promotion; they may also be forced into a lower rank than they had when they left. Other issues that affect the ability of discharged service members to return are their age and physical fitness and the military’s declaration that they are currently at full capacity. (Does that mean that they can get rid of the recruiters?)

Three discharged gay military members have filed a lawsuit asserting that they were unconstitutionally discharged and should be reinstated, presumably at their former ranks. One of them, a former major who was deployed at least four times to the Middle East, was among the highest-ranking members removed under the ban. Another is former Air Force officer Michael Almy who never told anyone he was gay; another service member snooped through his emails. After his discharge, his wing commander formally recommended that he be promoted to lieutenant colonel because of his outstanding performance. His discharge cost him, among other things, $1.5 million in retirement benefits.

Some conservatives didn’t give up trying to stop the repeal of the gay/lesbian ban in the military. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) and the committee’s personnel chairman Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) wrote to the Department of Defense complaining that lawmakers still had not received copies of all policy changes connected to the repeal. (Wilson is the representative known for yelling “You lie” during one of President Obama’s State of the Union speeches.) The letter argues that Congress and military personnel need to be fully informed of the impact of repeal before military leaders can say the force is ready for the change. Earlier in the summer 23 Republican lawmakers petitioned the White House to halt any repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law because of continued concern and debate about the wisdom of changing the law.

To memorialize this momentous occasion, HBO will air a documentary on the history of the policy to ban gays and lesbians in the military, its implementation, and the harm that the policy has caused individuals’ lives and careers and perhaps the military itself. The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will be shown at midnight tonight and primetime tomorrow.

If you want more information about the fight to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military, get Aaron Belkin’s e-book, How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Belkin is director of the Palm Center, a California-based research group leading research on issues connected with gays and lesbians serving in the military.

September 20, 2011 can also be celebrated as the release date of OutServe magazine, published by the association of actively-serving LGBT military personnel. The September 20th Repeal Issue will honor the gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women “who have proudly served their nation.” OutServe magazine has also launched an interactive website where readers can comment, share articles, and order both digital and print versions of the magazine. The website will also feature exclusive videos and member blogs not found in the print edition.

Some issues regarding gays and lesbians in the military are still unsettled, including a court case heard by a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. When the Log Cabin Republicans sued the government on the basis that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban was unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips agreed with the Log Cabin Republicans. Later the 9th Circuit Court put off this ruling to see if Congress would change the law. It did, and the U.S. government wants the court to vacate Phillips’ decision, declaring it moot.

Dan Woods, an attorney for the Log Cabin Republicans, disagreed, saying that a decision needed to be made because lawmakers or future administrations in Washington could decide at some point to reinstate the ban. “If this case does not go forward on the merits and you don’t affirm it on the merits, the government will be completely unrestrained in its ability to again ban gay service in the military,” Woods said. “We have multiple presidential candidates promising as part of their campaign platforms to repeal the repeal.”

Declaring the law unconstitutional would also provide a legal path for thousands discharged under the policy to seek reinstatement, back pay, or other compensation for having their careers cut short or their veteran’s benefits withheld, Woods said. Judges have still not made a ruling on this case.

Now that Congress (the Democratic one last year, not the Republican one this year) has decided to drop its military discrimination against gays and lesbians, they need to move on to remove the stigma from transgender people. Existing military regulations still classify them as “unfit for service.” Transgender-identifying people are barred from entering the armed forces, and transgender service members can be “separated” from the military. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs confirms that transgender veterans have access to medically necessary healthcare including sex-specific care and transition-related procedures. The only exception is for sex-reassignment surgery.

Partners of gays and lesbians serving their country also lack equality: federal laws keep them from benefits such as base housing, health insurance, certain death benefits, legal counseling, and access to base commissaries. The positive side is that U.S. State Department has already granted as many rights for partners of gays and lesbians as are legal, such as diplomatic passports and their inclusion in calculations for housing and cost-of-living allowances at overseas posts, to same-sex couples.

At least for now these men and women serving their country and their partners no longer need to hide who they are. In the meantime, tomorrow we’ll just appreciate one small step for gay and lesbian equality.

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